Embassies, even during quiet seasons in Washington, D.C., find it difficult to break through the city’s loud and domestically focused echo chamber and get their messages out. And this is not a quiet season in Washington.
The United States and its political capital are clearly engulfed in a passionate debate about a hugely controversial war. Washington is also riveted by a new party seizing control of Congress after a dozen years in the political wilderness, and the 2008 presidential election is already beginning to rev up, with new candidates leaping into the race almost daily.
So what are embassies and diplomats to do in this environment? Experts say that embassies should develop and implement a careful, coherent and patient strategy to get their messages out. Especially in this raucous time, they should approach their work as a kind of exercise in gardening, preparing the soil for an eventual flowering. Analysts agree that as part of this gardening, embassies must understand the terrain in which they are operating.
The Washington press corps is a large and complicated assortment of news organizations whose mission, focus and even professional ethics vary enormously.
The centerpiece of the press corps continues to be national newspapers such as the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post and USA Today. Regional newspapers such as the Boston Globe, Baltimore Sun, Dallas Morning News and Chicago Tribune also contribute to the city’s political debate.
All of these publications have Web sites that are attracting a growing number of readers, and although readership for most major newspapers is declining, studies show they still shape the policy agenda.
In addition, weekly news magazines help frame policy discussions, including Time, Newsweek, the Weekly Standard, the Nation as well as two policy magazines, Congressional Quarterly and National Journal, which are read and even studied by decision makers and journalists. Also among the mix are three Capitol Hill tabloids: Roll Call, the Hill and the recently launched Politico.
Aside from print, studies indicate that Americans still receive much of their news from the major television networks: ABC, NBC and CBS. But cable stations such as CNN, Fox, C-SPAN and MSNBC are seizing segments of the market once controlled by the commercial networks. The Public Broadcasting Service, PBS, also produces important news shows and documentaries. Likewise, National Public Radio is listened to by millions of Americans every morning and evening.
In addition, the two main news wires, Associated Press and Reuters, are very important conduits of news. Both are being challenged by Bloomberg, which has expanded from its business news origins to become a multimedia behemoth. Several business newswires such as Dow Jones and Market News International are important conveyors of breaking news as well.
Finally, Washington’s press corps also includes a host of TV and radio shows, political Web sites, blogs, syndicated columnists, trade publications, newsletters and overseas news services.
Experts agree that although this large media industry is very diverse and does not lend itself to easy generalization, three tendencies tend to dominate the press corps.
First, there is an intense “story of the day” mentality that permeates the Washington press. Often driven by that day’s headline in the Washington Post or New York Times, many of the city’s journalists always seem to be working on the same story.
Second, even in the post-9/11 age, Washington reporting has an intense domestic focus. Even the war in Iraq is often considered from the narrow lens of U.S. domestic politics.
Third, there is an undeniable fascination with conflict, whether it be the White House battling Congress, the Congress scorching the Supreme Court, Democrats hammering Republicans, or Republicans hammering each other.
Other than The Washington Diplomat—the only newspaper specifically geared toward D.C.’s diplomatic community—the Washington press corps is not overly interested in what diplomats do on a regular basis. On those occasions when a country does find itself in the news, there is often a spike in interest, but this almost always fades as quickly as it appeared.
The simple fact is that few journalists or news organizations follow Washington’s diplomatic community on a day-to-day basis. Large newspapers such as the Washington Post, New York Times and Wall Street Journal have diplomatic correspondents, but they mostly cover the State Department, Pentagon and U.S. intelligence agencies. Similarly, diplomatic correspondents for major TV networks rarely see or interview diplomats. And many local publications that cover stories about diplomats tend to do so mostly from a social angle.
In fact, at the end of 2002, one of the main outlets specifically interested in the work of diplomats, Washington’s venerable Overseas Writers group, scaled back its operations after more than 80 years. The demise of the club was attributed to the rise of cable television outlets in which journalists covered the news by watching TV rather than cultivating sources.
Although the post-9/11 climate in Washington is far more open to international affairs than before, this interest tends to be issue-specific, with a focus on terrorism or intelligence reform, or country-specific, with attention paid to developments in, say, Pakistan, China or Saudi Arabia.
To compete in this environment, analysts say diplomats need both a message and a strategy in their dealings with the Washington press corps. This message should be clear and compelling, and the strategy should be to reach out to members of the press corps who might be inclined—or persuaded—to write about their country.
Successful diplomats working in Washington say breaking through is difficult, but not impossible. Karim Haggag, director of the Egyptian Press and Information Office, said there is vigorous competition among embassies to gain the ear of official Washington.
“Washington is a city awash with information and competing agendas. The audiences we target—the executive branch, the Congress, the media, think tanks, advocacy groups—are deluged with information and we have to compete with others to be heard. It’s very hard and it’s especially hard when an electoral season begins and the country’s attention turns to domestic issues,” Haggag said. “We try to cast a very wide net, explaining to the widest possible audience who Egypt is and what we are about. Then we have a more targeted message when we are focusing on a specific issue or using the visit of an important official from home.”
According to Tshepo Mazibuko, public diplomacy counselor at the South African Embassy, embassies need to advance a wide-ranging strategy and connect various initiatives with an overarching message.
“Washington is a difficult terrain to operate in. Your message has to be clear and crisp and precise to break through. You have to show creativity. You have to know your audience. You have to tailor your message to this audience,” he said. “You have to have a multi-prong strategy that includes hard-core issues and soft issues.”
As part of its strategy, Mazibuko said the South African Embassy sponsors lectures, films, concerts, culinary events and outreach programs to area schools in addition to its daily contacts with the media. It also uses a quarterly newsletter and Web site to describe what the embassy is doing.
He added that his embassy also works with other African embassies to communicate a broader message about Africa. “There is sometimes a perception that the African address is not a good address. We believe this fails to capture the positive reality in Africa. There are a lot of very positive things going on in Africa. We work with our diplomatic counterparts in Africa to tell this story,” he said.
Merissa Khurma, director and press attaché with the Jordanian Embassy, agreed that public diplomacy has to be broadly gauged to be effective in Washington.
“Public diplomacy has to be conducted on every level—media, culture, politics, economics. So we’ve developed a comprehensive message that we’re sending to American audiences,” she said, citing cultural events, receptions, media outreach, and taking advantage of visits by Jordanian officials.
“A lot of what we do is networking, but it is networking with substance,” she added. “I’ve found that the press comes to you in Washington, but you have to maintain relationships so they come again.”
Jelena Cukic Matic, press counselor at the Serbian Embassy, said that her embassy has decided to focus on targeting those journalists who have an interest in her country and the Balkans.
“I find the personal touch is effective. Journalists are sent so many press releases and newsletters and most of them just don’t have time to read them. You have so little time to get their attention, you have to use it carefully. We think it’s better to reach one or two and deal with them on a specific and substantive issue. This has much more impact,” she explained, noting that her embassy uses the visit of an official as the context for an in-depth briefing for a few journalists.
Wolfgang Renezeder, director of Austria’s Press and Information Service, said his embassy pursues an entire range of outreach programs, pointing specifically to its newsletter, which has been published since 1947. The newsletter is posted on the embassy’s Web site but is also sent to 11,000 individuals and groups six times a year.
“This is a tradition we are very proud of. We think a hard copy is something that a lot people like to have, especially older people, who might not be as comfortable with the Internet,” he said.
Anders Ericson, press counselor with the Swedish Embassy, said Sweden constantly reaches out to the press corps and tries to find reasons to bring them to Sweden’s spectacular new embassy on the Potomac River in Georgetown, dubbed the House of Sweden.
“We see the House of Sweden as more than an embassy. It’s a tool to highlight those areas in which we believe Sweden is a cutting-edge country, such as the environment and transportation,” he explained. “The House of Sweden increases our visibility in Washington. This has really helped our public diplomacy.”
Veteran Diplomat Reflects on Communications Battles
Claes Thorson worked for four years as Sweden’s press counselor in Washington, constantly searching for ways to get his country heard and noticed. A former television journalist in Sweden, Thorson is now a communications consultant in Stockholm.
Thorson said his four years of experimentation in Washington gave him some ideas on how a country can get its message out in the political capital of the world.
“Don’t forget word of mouth. It has an enormous importance in the communications chain. Walk your talk. That means walk a lot, move around and meet people in person. Tell a story about yourself and your country that you believe in,” he said.
He also urged diplomats to take advantage of e-mail, which he called “a fantastic tool of communications with journalists. You reach them in an energy-saving and less disturbing way. But remember, e-mail is a complement to the personal contact.”
He said press counselors should respond to queries from journalists promptly, answering questions or putting them in touch with experts or helpful sources. “Follow up on good contacts. Keep a living up-to-date contact list,” he advised.
In addition, Thorson said he found it very important to document embassy activities, including the frequent use of photographs. “It was very useful to combine text of a press release with our own photos. It increased the space given to us in the media.”
When meeting with journalists, he said the press counselor should always come with a message. “The story about your country should stress the uniqueness. My job was also to promote media personalities and good storytellers.”
Thorson added that it’s important to be careful and not say more than you know—and always be gracious. “Keep your feet out of your month. Don’t slander or quote rumors. Always remember that you might be quoted tomorrow on the first page of the New York Times,” he said.
He also recommended that diplomats use their consulates to tell their country’s story outside of Washington. “Remember that the U.S. is more than D.C., New York and Los Angeles.”
Finally, Thorson said an embassy press counselor should be persistent, energetic and creative, but not push too hard. “Don’t oversell and be too eager.”
About the Author
John Shaw is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.